Crosses in the Grass

Call me naive, and I'll openly admit to that, but when I walked out of the building and saw this protest the other day, I first thought it was an anti-war protest. Circling around the front of the installation, though, I saw this placard:

Getting back to my computer for about three seconds worth of research, I found out that the use of the iconography of lots-of-crosses-as-mini-grave-markers in anti-abortion/anti-choice protests is part of a nationally organized rhetoric of protest.

(Aside: I should say that I'm slated to teach a seminar in the fall titled "The Rhetoric of Social Engagement," and while many of the social movements we'll be looking at are coming from various places on the left, I've been wanting to attend to a broader spectrum of political rhetorical engagement so as not to miss out on some interesting tactics. The Crosses in the Grass seemed a perfect opportunity.)

The Crosses in the Grass interest me because of the existing iconography they borrow from, how that borrowing amounts to a repurposing and reframing of arguments in the antagonistic pro-choice/anti-abortion debate (to be simplistic), and how some slippages in rhetorical relationships seem not to matter in the rhetoric of this protest.

(Meta-commentary: I know I've just launched a three-part "preview" or "mapping" thesis statement or quasi-thesis statment, and for that I apologize. It's just that I've been reading "five-paragraph essays about the five-paragraph essay" assignments all week, the topic for a later post, so maybe they're wearing off on me.)

On borrowing:
There are two obvious sources from which the iconography of this protest are borrowed. In planting immaculate rows of tiny crosses, a reference is made to Christian grave marker imagery (the cross) and child graves (with the size of the crosses). This has obvious motives.

The second borrowing is enacted through the immaculateness of the rows, the density of the imagined plots, and the similarity of all the grave markers. To my mind, this references military cemeteries. Only in those grave plots does one find the invariability of matching grave markers characterized in the iconography of this protest.

On repurposing and reframing:
Both borrowings repurpose and reframe the iconography they borrow from, locating visual display in a newly situated rhetorical system of social and political protest.

The first reframing (of grave markers) is really quite simple and too uninteresting to say much about: a mass of tiny Christian crosses argues that there are vast numbers of dead "babies" being figuratively buried each day.

The second reframing involves creating a relationship between aborted fetuses or pre-fetuses and war dead. Fetuses/pre-fetuses are aligned with people killed in battle, so we have soldiers (and other people killed in wars) and fetuses/pre-fetuses aligned, as well as adults and fetuses/pre-fetuses.

On slippages and the rhetoric of protest:
One obvious slippage in the first reframing (of the grave marker) is in the argument that they are Christian aborted fetuses and pre-fetuses; why else would they have earned crosses as grave markers? This kind of weirdly reminds me of other instances of cross-denominational retro-active salvations and things like that, but what is obviously a slippage is that it seems to work against a primary rhetoric of anti-abortion/anti-choice arguments: namely, that this is an issue of life. In the protest, it seems it is not any more an issue of life but Christian life. However, as with the next slippage, I get the sense that this slippage does not function to compromise the rhetoric of protest in the Crosses in the Grass. Instead, such a slippage seems allowable in the creation of a larger visual and spatial text.

In the alignment of war dead with aborted fetuses and pre-fetuses, there is another slippage. By connecting the two vary different groups, simultaneously it seems implied that 1) "the unborn" are victims of a war, but also that 2) war dead are akin to the result of a medical procedure. This second implication is a way in which the appropriation seems to work two ways at once, saying something about war dead while the Crosses in the Grass attempt to say something about "the 3,600 babies."

As I mentioned, these slippages (a result of appropriations and reframings) seem not to compromise this kind of rhetoric of protest. At the same time, it seems surprising to see the otherwise sacred iconography of the military cemetery brought into this debate, if only because I don't think of pro-life rhetoric, despite the name, as anti-war just yet.

Of course, I thought this protest was anti-war when I first saw it; in a strange sense, it almost is in that it symbolizes war dead as akin to a "mass slaughter" (real or imagined) here at home.


  1. Initially, I also take this display as a war protest. Most likely this is because I read from a certain perspective. The installation grounds appear to be on a campus or peaceful community setting—a place antithetical to war because of its beauty.

    Also, do the military-like crosses work to attract the eyes of war critics and build on their sense of non-violent action? The dead might then allude to martyrdom. This, of course, could blend well with non-violent sensibilities and perhaps be persuasive in the long term.

    A very clever display you’ve stumbled across here.

  2. They're always in front of the English building. Always.

  3. c. . .11:39 AM

    i suppose that's because it's a good site for the display (with the little rise allowing all the crosses to be seen), not because they've determined that the EB is particularly prone to abortions . . .

    p.s. i too thought it was anti-war when i walked out of the building.

  4. Hey Spencer - Who can resist commenting on dead baby iconography? Not me! Anyway, while I see less of these makeshift memorials in the west, they would spring up like mushrooms in La where I went to grad school for my MA. Besides the obvious xian overtones - all souls are somehow inherently a specific religion - it's effective bc of its scope.

    It's difficult to imagine 3,600 of anything, and in that way the crosses are useful, just to give scale. I'm thinking of the 360 degree site that we looked at in the rhet theory class that had a person icon appearing once a second and it said something like, it would take a year for it to illustrate how many Americans were incarcerated in the prison system.

    It's one of the things I keep thinking of, how can you represent many of anything to show scale without it becoming absurd or reducing it to a singular sentimental schmaltz? The crosses creep me out, but then again, so do roadside makeshift memorials where car accidents happened.

  5. Vernacular memorials on the roadside! I love those!